Seems Like an Unsolvable Problem: A Loosely Hinged Recommendation for Tackling Bus Driver Shortages

By James Hamilton

This week Chapel Hill Transit celebrated Valentine’s Day by restoring several bus trips that had been removed at the beginning of the year.[i]  Following an erratic Fall semester, the provider officially reduced its service in response to staff shortages. Beginning in January 2022, the A, CL, CM, CW, D, J, and N routes all had leaner schedules with the goal of “minimizing missed trips throughout the system.”[ii] Anecdotally, reliability did indeed improve; however, despite adjustments as “the number of callouts [started to] decrease,” conversations among frustrated UNC students on being late for class were replaced by those on having no choice but to be half-an-hour early instead.[iii] Even as route schedules continue to return to normal, expectations for service quality remain low.

The bus driver shortage is far from a unique problem for the Town of Chapel Hill. In October 2021, public transit employment was at 84 percent of pre-pandemic levels.[iv] Arguably the most heavily hit by the trend are schoolchildren: over 80 percent of school districts have altered their service since the outbreak of COVID-19, further complicating the learning of student cohorts already balancing blended instructional delivery modes.[v] More broadly, public transit disruptions have racial equity implications, as 60 percent of riders nationwide are people of color.[vi]

Other than food and agriculture workers, transportation operators face the highest risk of COVID-19 death of all employment sectors, so an individual’s cost-benefit analysis that produces a verdict that $16.50/hour is not worth jeopardizing her health or that of her loved ones is, perhaps, understandable.[vii],[viii] With that in mind, below I evaluate potential policy measures that Chapel Hill Transit and other public transit systems can consider to remedy the impact of bus driver shortages.

Partner with Rideshare Companies

At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago proposed rideshare companies as a potential stop-gap for bus driver shortages caused by mass resignation over Chicago Public School’s vaccine mandate.[ix] The idea would be to strike an agreement with Uber, Lyft, or a similar company to fulfill the transit needs of the city’s school children. Although no deal was made, the suggestion no doubt tickled the fancies of transportation engineers. Can mass transit need be fulfilled by a fleet of personal automobiles operated by gig workers?

Uber certainly seems to think it has a role to play; the company is positioning itself as a new public transit option, suggesting that replacing 1 to 6 percent of bus trips with their ridesharing services could result in a 15 to 30 percent cost reduction per trip for transportation agencies.[x] Putting aside that Uber almost exclusively cited data from “Uber analysis” in its report, the conclusion is not illogical: ridesharing’s variable cost structure is inherently more responsive to demand than is the fixed cost structure typical of public transportation agencies. In Uber’s vision, if it were to integrate into a public transportation system, tax-payer money would go directly to its corporate headquarters instead of toward financing bus routes; so, if ridership decreases, cost would too. The simple beauty of this measure is that the more thoroughly a local government commits to it, the less consequential the shortages become. Running out of bus operators? Cut some lines, throw subsidies at Uber, and save some money.

Potential Impact of Policy on Chapel Hill Transit

+ Point-to-point service would improve first- and last-mile connectivity; blind allegiance to the Invisible Hand would restore patriotism to Orange County.

The rush of developers hoping to revitalize defunct bus stops could cause speculation.

Uber’s intricately detailed explanation of economics to local government. Source: Uber

Induce Demand for Operators

Historically, transportation planners have either misunderstood or chosen to ignore “induced demand.” This economic principle states that if a good that people value is provided at no cost then demand will meet the supply.[xi] The frequently referenced (and even more frequently witnessed) scenario is that of highway expansion; local governments try to alleviate traffic by building new lanes, thereby attracting more car drivers to the road and instead increasing congestion.

Cries for officials to recognize this trend are only growing louder, and opportunity awaits those that do. Not only can planners reverse their auto-centric policies and reduce congestion and emissions, they can mitigate bus driver shortages as well. Following the above logic, if public transit providers construct buses and allow people to drive buses free of charge, the demand of people willing to drive buses will meet the supply of buses. In theory, this policy could maximize the potential of induced demand in transportation, as bus operators are paid – imagine how many cars would be on the road if drivers earned money to be there? It remains a personal curiosity and frustration of mine that so few planners have a working understanding of induced demand.

Potential Impact of Policy on Chapel Hill Transit

+ Surplus bus drivers can be retrained as bus conductors, adding new jobs to the economy and reinstating a sorely missed pillar of 1970s European society.

Building more buses may contribute to sound pollution by also inducing demand for young mothers singing “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Highway expansion is often used as an example of how planners have traditionally ignored induced demand theories. Source: Steve Davis

Force Passengers to Say Thank You

Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, wrote 30,000 notes to his employees between 2001 and 2009, each one thanking an individual for a specific contribution; in that time, the company transformed from one with falling stock to one outperforming both the S&P Food Group and the S&P 500.[xii] Many understand the power of the words “thank you” on an intuitive level, but thinking about the phrase as having economic value is not so widespread.

As mentioned above, many former or potential bus operators do not see the pay as worth the risk of transmitting COVID-19, but the increase in gratitude that a thank-you-mandate would provoke would effectively add an additional wage, thereby encouraging more drivers to work for public transit providers.

Potential Impact of Policy on Chapel Hill Transit

+ Bus operators will feel so valued that Chapel Hill will never have to worry about collective bargaining.

If saying thank you is forced, there is an outside chance it will come across as disingenuous thereby having the opposite effect.

Campbell’s Soup was the inspiration for one of Andy Warhol’s most famous pieces – could Chapel Hill benefit similarly? Source: The Museum of Modern Art

Wait for the “Thin Air Phenomenon”

Perhaps by virtue of its Big Bang ancestry, the world has a habit of conjuring something where nothing came before it. From monoliths to Beanie Babies, Jesus to Eminem, unexplained phenomena can be found throughout human history. American democracy has often relied heavily on the “Thin Air Phenomenon” to drive much of its national agenda. Trickle-down economics, good-guy-with-gun theory, and clean coal initiatives have all successfully informed government officials that doing nothing is often the best way to achieve desired results. Waiting might be transportation providers’ best option.

Potential Impact of Policy on Chapel Hill Transit

+ Easy, no cost to tax payer

Can the Town be trusted not to abuse handouts?

Immaculate conception has a strong political tradition in American democracy. Source: Garrett Parker

Pay Bus Drivers More

The least likely measure that I shall not waste time articulating.

[i] Town of Chapel Hill, “Chapel Hill Transit restores trips on the CL, D, & J routes Monday,” February 9, 2022.

[ii] Town of Chapel Hill, “Chapel Hill Transit reduces its transit service starting Monday,” January 7, 2022.

[iii] Town of Chapel Hill, “Chapel Hill Transit restores trips to several routes Monday,” January 20, 2022.

[iv] National Campaign for Transit Justice Alliance for a Justice Society Labor Network for Sustainability TransitCenter, Invest in Transit Equity, Invest in Transit Workers, February, 2022.

[v] National School Transportation Association, “NAPT, NASDPTS and NSTA Release Findings of School Bus Driver Shortage Survey,” August 31st, 2021.

[vi] National Campaign for Transit Justice Alliance for a Justice Society Labor Network for Sustainability TransitCenter, Invest in Transit Equity, Invest in Transit Workers.

[vii] Yea-Hung Chen et al., “Excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic among Californians 18–65 years of age, by occupational sector and occupation: March through October 2020,” Plos One 16(6): e0252454.

[viii], “Bus driver salary in Chapel Hill, NC,” accessed on February 5, 2022.

[ix] Nader Issa, “CPS talking to Lyft, Uber after bus drivers quit over vaccine mandate,” Chicago Sun Times, August 30, 2021.

[x] Uber, Transit Horizons: Towards a New Model of Public Transportation, accessed on February 5, 2022.

[xi] Steve Davis, “More highways, more driving, more emissions: Explaining ‘induced demand,’” Transportation for America, October 20, 2021.

[xii] Rodger Dean Duncan, “How Campbell’s Soup’s Former CEO Turned to Company Around,” Fast Company, September 18, 2014.

James Hamilton is a first-year Master’s student with the Department of City and Regional Planning whose interests center on urban design in relation to community marginalization, environmental justice, societal cohesion, and suburban retrofit. He studied public policy and economics at Duke University and has since worked in New Orleans and New York before circling back to the triangle. Never happier than when he is hiking up a mountain or traveling on a train, James fails to commit enough time to his average writing collections, ambitious reading list, and lifelong rugby enthusiasm.

Edited by Amy Patronella

Featured image: A Chapel Hill bus advertises for new operators. Courtesy of the Town of Chapel Hill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s